Study Notes on Matthew’s Gospel: Fruits of True Repentance
Matthew 3:7-12 (NIVUK): “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptising, he said to them: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.
And do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe has been laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’”
In these verses, we hear John challenging the motives of the Pharisees and Sadducees who had come with the crowds to be baptised by him.
First off, let us look at these two groups. The Pharisees and the Sadducees had very little in common – they had a history of vying for power against each other – and their influence at any point in time was dependent on their respective relationships with the current ruler.
The Pharisees came to prominence in 135-105 BC after the Maccabean revolt which saw Israel break free of Greek influence. Pharisees were seen as champions of Hebrew religious life and sought to rid Israel of all Hellenistic cultural traits. They looked to the Hebrew Bible for guidance and developed a detailed oral tradition based on their interpretation of Scripture.
Sadducees on the other hand took a very literal view of the Torah, and accepted only the first five books (Pentateuch) and they completely rejected the notion of oral tradition. They did not believe in resurrection of the body. They were wealthy aristocrats who controlled all aspects of temple life, including the collection of temple tax and the running of the major festivals. Although small in number they exerted considerable influence on religious life in Jerusalem. The high priests of this period were Sadducees.
In summary, these two groups had very little in common and their relationship with each other was often hostile.
Now, back to Matthew – members of the two groups were coming to John for baptism and because of the mutual hostility they would not have been travelling together. John says something to them which is quite insightful – he calls them a brood of vipers – identifying a common characteristic – they had no intention of honestly repenting of their sinful ways (basically because they did not see themselves as sinful). I also read that calling a person a viper (snake) at this time was the equivalent of calling them a hypocrite.
Another interesting point is that John calls them offspring of vipers – they were the product of the people who proceeded them. In a way they were poisoning the whole nation with their deadly deception and had been doing so for a number of generations
The central plank for salvation for these people was that they were descendants of Abraham yet their deeds did not demonstrate the same faith as Abraham. The outward signs they looked for in people was their adherence to the laws of Moses, especially the purity laws and separation from sinful people.
The Pharisees may have started out with good intentions when they championed Hebrew religious laws over Greek culture but they misunderstood the role of faith and replaced it with a works-based theology to the extent that they lost sight of the requirements of mercy, compassion and forgiveness.
In regard to the other group. the Sadducees, they disappeared after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and their religious philosophy faded from view. However, the Pharisees went on to set the scene for the next two thousand years – a scene centred on isolation and cultural purity.
Let’s look at some verses concerning these people, the first one from Matthew 23:1-3 “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: ‘The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practise what they preach.”
Matthew 9:10-12, “While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’
Matthew 12:1-3, “At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some ears of corn and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, ‘Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.’”
Matthew 15:1-3, “Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!’ Jesus replied, ‘And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?”
Matthew 23:23-24, “‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”
I think you get the picture, the Pharisees were preoccupied with the letter of the law but did not have a relationship with the law-giver; they were more interested in their standing before men and ignored their relationship with their God; they loved the law but they failed to love God and their neighbour. Worst of all they were, in general, hypocrites who failed to do what they preached.
The Call to Repentance
Now to bring this all together, John the Baptist was calling people to repentance through baptism; and what are the fruits of repentance? In Acts 26:20b, we read, “I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds.” Repentance is always demonstrated in a transformed life.
God sees the deeds we do and these deeds reflect the spiritual status of our lives. True repentance means turning your back on sin, to learn from God through Scripture with the Holy Spirit’s help, how to act righteously. Then to seek justice, relief for the oppressed, to defend the fatherless and to care for the widow.
As John could discern that, in general, the Pharisees and Sadducees came to him for baptism as unrepentant hypocrites. However, John’s strong words may have been a wake-up call for a few of them who came to see that their legal approach to the law of Moses and their traditions were placing a burden on people and not helping them fulfil the spirit of God’s commands through faith.
It’s the same today, many people are called to repentance but they fail to see their sinfulness and do not understand their dire need for forgiveness because in their eyes, ‘they are basically good people’. Yet, we are told throughout Scripture, that all have sinned and therefore we all must repent.
I’ll end with Romans 3:22-25: “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood – to be received by faith. … “
Additional Notes on True Repentance
Repentance is a gift from God and God grants this gift in a three-fold way – the intellectual, the emotional and the will to change by committing to a course of action.
Repentance begins when there is a knowledge and recognition of sin, involving a sense of personal guilt, a sense of personal defilement and a sense of personal helplessness to change without God’s help.
In Psalm 51, we see these three components: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.”
The recognition of sin is the first step, but true repentance always involves a willingness to change Pharaoh (Exodus 9:27), Balaam (Numbers 22:24), Achan (Joshua 7:20), Saul (1 Samuel 15:24) and Judas (Matthew 25:4-5) all recognised that they had sinned but their subsequent actions clearly indicated that they had not changed their sinful hearts.
When one recognises not only the fact that one has sinned, but that sin is hateful to an holy God then there is an overwhelming sense of guilt in the emotions. In Matthew 5:4, we read about the natural response to the understanding that we have offended God by our sinfulness, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We suffer emotional grief when we realise what our sins do to our Holy Lord, and we plead for mercy and if genuine then we will receive God’s forgiveness.
The rubber hits the road, so to speak, by an act of our will to change our ways – to turn around and leave our sinful habits behind. In the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:18-20a), we read that first the son decides to go back to his father, and then he acts on this decision – he got up and went – “I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.” So he got up and went to his father.” All to often, this final step of true repentance is not carried out.
One last point: We recognise that salvation came with the first coming of Christ and judgement will come when the Lord returns. Those who don’t believe in Jesus and have not truly repented for their sins will suffer (Matthew 3:12) the flames of an unquenchable fire. That’s the ‘choice’ we all face. There is no third option!
- Bible Study Notes prepared by the late Rev. Eric Bird (mostly used for framework and headings). His notes were, in turn, based on the following primary source: “The MacArthur New Testament Commentary – Matthew, Volumes 1-5″, published by the Moody Bible Institute. [Note: I don’t fully endorse Dr John MacArthur’s work, so I’ll try to steer away from any detailed references or quotes.]
- Extensive on-line searches – especially in the area of translation variations.
- Notes on Matthew’s Gospel as compiled by Fr. Bernie Patterson, sourced from multiple references.
- Overall – I’ve selected material, which fits into my view of Matthew’s Gospel – naturally!